Tuition, student loan debt and 'worthless' degrees: Where Tony Evers and Tim Michels stand on higher education

[Milwaukee Journal Sentinel] Tuition, student loan debt and 'worthless' degrees: Where Tony Evers and Tim Michels stand on higher education

Tuition, student loan debt and 'worthless' degrees: Where Tony Evers and Tim Michels stand on higher education

Fewer than half of Wisconsin high school graduates are going on to college in the fall, down from 60% five years ago, state data show. And yet Wisconsin desperately needs more teachers, nurses, engineers and other skilled workers.

Leaders of the state's public university and technical college systems say their campuses are key to addressing the state's workforce shortage. But they face a slew of challenges, including a decades-long decline in state funding and stagnant financial aid for students that makes college more expensive.

The governor plays a big part in the direction of these two institutions.

Tony Evers — who earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison—essentially played goalie on higher education in his first term. He blocked Republican legislative proposals from becoming law and proposed ideas that the GOP-controlled Legislature rejected. With Republicans poised to retain control of the Assembly and Senate, a second term under Evers would likely mean maintaining the status quo.

If Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels wins, the door opens for potentially sweeping changes similar to that of Evers' predecessor. Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker reshaped the state's UW System, enacting historic budget cuts, stripping tenure from state law, freezing tuition for in-state undergraduates and approving legislation that shifted power away from faculty and toward political appointees serving on the UW Board of Regents.

Michels — who earned a bachelor's degree in political science from St. Norbert College, a master's degree in business administration from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in public administration from the Illinois Institute of Technology — has said little about what he wants to see in the state’s higher education systems. The education platform on his campaign website focuses mostly on K-12 schools.

Michels' running mate, Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, has said a lot about where he'd like to steer the UW System. As chair of the Senate Committee on Universities and Colleges, he authored a report suggesting grouping campuses into four geographic regions with each campus retaining its own identity. UW-Madison was excluded from the consolidation plan.

Whether Michels supports Roth's plan isn't clear. His campaign spokesperson provided a statement that didn't address questions about his positions on specific higher education policies. But he's made clear he wants changes.

“Nowhere is the need to turn things upside down more pressing than in education,” Michels said on his campaign website.

Here's what we know about how the candidates will approach postsecondary education:

How Evers and Michels will handle the UW System tuition freeze

Undergraduate tuition for in-state students at UW campuses has been frozen since 2013. The freeze has saved students thousands of dollars, but UW leaders argue it threatens the long-term financial stability and educational quality of campuses.

In Evers' past two budget proposals, he called for continuing the tuition freeze but giving campuses money to offset the millions in dollars they're losing by not increasing tuition rates.

The Legislature significantly pared back the additional funding requests. It also recently sent tuition-setting authority back to the UW Board of Regents. The board hasn't moved to increase rates but may do so for the 2023-24 school year.

"We have to deal with this issue of tuition, whether we, as a state, fund the freeze, or somehow we have to work through the dynamics on that," Evers recently told the media after a student panel on the UW-Milwaukee campus. "I'm not sure that's a long-term solution to all the universities' problems."

An Evers spokesperson didn't return emails seeking clarity on whether Evers would propose continuing the freeze and supplementing it with additional funding or deferring to the Regents.

Michels' team also hasn't said how he'd handle tuition beyond keeping it affordable.

"Endorsed by education leader and Governor Tommy Thompson, Tim Michels will ensure that our higher education system sets students up for success in their chosen field — be it through a four-year degree or technical education," Michels campaign spokesperson Anna Kelly said in a statement to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Tim will incentivize the number of skilled workers for high-demand jobs such as nursing, teaching, and vocational workers, advocate for keeping tuition affordable, and actually meet with legislative leaders to ensure that our education system is working for all students."

Evers and Michels agree on investment in career and technical education

Michels and Evers agree on at least one thing: College isn't for everyone, and the state should invest in training and apprenticeship programs to streamline the path to high-demand trades careers.

Michels plans to promote working in the trades right out of high school, as many of the employees at his construction company do. He criticized Evers for vetoing a bill that would have tapped at least $20 million in federal COVID-19 relief dollars toward apprenticeship programs.

In explaining his veto, Evers said he welcomed the opportunity to invest in these programs, noting that the budgets he signed included more than $10 million for apprenticeships. But he objected to the Legislature's attempt to direct federal spending, which he said has fallen under the governor's oversight for decades.

Michels claims students are pushed toward 'worthless' degrees

While Michels promotes trades careers, he has also questioned the value of some college degrees. At least seven times during his campaign, he's focused his skepticism on Eastern European literature, claiming students are being pushed to get degrees in this field, saddled with debt and unable to get a job.

"We have so many dollars that go towards, I don't want to say worthless degrees, but you get a degree in Eastern European literature, your job prospects are pretty pretty darn slim," he told conservative radio host Vicki McKenna. "We need to teach more skills that we have needs in, like nursing, like engineering."

The number of Wisconsin students earning degrees in Eastern European literature is small, according to the most recent federal data. UW-Madison awarded six graduate degrees and three undergraduate certificates — which are similar to a minor — in Russian, Central European, East European and Eurasian Studies. Other Wisconsin universities offer degrees or certificates in other foreign languages and literature, but none with this particular geographic focus.

Evers has long pledged support for the humanities, and the critical thinking skills students gain from studying those disciplines. But he's also said he also wants students prepared for the workforce. He proposed funding a new engineering building on the UW-Madison campus that will allow the College of Engineering to enroll 1,000 more students. Republicans rejected the funding request.

Evers proposed amending state income taxation on Joe Biden's student loan forgiveness

Under President Joe Biden's student loan forgiveness plan, borrowers earning less than $125,000 annually will have up to $20,000 in debt wiped away — and they won’t pay federal tax on the debt discharge.

But unlike most other states, the discharge of student loan debt is taxable income under current Wisconsin law. The Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, calculated the state tax will be about $530 for most Wisconsin borrowers. 

Evers has proposed amending the law so borrowers aren’t penalized. The change would require approval from the Republican-controlled Legislature, whose leaders haven’t responded to questions about whether they would support the move.

The Michels team also has not responded to questions about whether he supports taxing student loan forgiveness.

More:A bandage? A huge help? Not needed? Here's what 5 Wisconsin borrowers think about student loan forgiveness

Michels open to expanding dual credit arrangements with high schools and colleges

A growing area of interest among postsecondary schools is dual credit, an arrangement where high school students enroll in college-level coursework and earn both high school and college credits. Research shows students in dual credit programs are more likely to graduate from high school and more likely to enroll in college. The arrangement can also reduce the time it takes to earn a college degree, saving students money.

Michels wants to expand dual credit programs by requiring the UW and technical college systems to accept dual credits for coursework done in high school.

"Right now these institutions are refusing to recognize these credits for the crass reason that they don’t want to lose revenue," Michels' campaign website said.

It's unclear what institutions he's referring to that aren't accepting credits. Campaign staff didn't respond to a request seeking clarity on the statement.

Data show both systems have been steadily growing their dual credit programs over the past decade.

A little more than 12,000 high school students enrolled in some 60,000 UW credits last year, mostly at UW-Oshkosh and UW-Green Bay. Most other campuses enroll a couple hundred students in dual credit programs, at best.

At technical colleges, more than 57,000 students earned nearly 257,000 college credits last school year, saving more than $36 million in college credit costs, or about $635 per student.

Vetoes offer clues as to how Michels would approach higher education if elected

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he would bring back all legislation Evers vetoed if Michels is elected. Previous vetoes relating to college campuses include:

A bill restricting what UW campuses are allowed to teach about systemic racism and sexism.A bill allowing students to satisfy diversity requirements in their curriculum by instead taking a class about the U.S. Constitution.A bill mandating UW's admissions requirements to be based only on "objective" criteria and to post this criteria online.A bill eliminating immunity for lawsuits against campus administrators who are alleged to have violated a student's free speech rights.

Michels' team didn't say whether he'd sign any of these bills into law, though Wisconsin Public Radio reported that he promised to do so during a September campaign rally.

"We are going to take those bills — those bills that Tony Evers vetoed," Michels said. "We're going to get them right. I'm going to sign them."